Penitent Snow

On top of the world at Chajnantor Plateau, Chile. Penitente in the foreground (cropped photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you don’t like snow, here’s some that you’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

These snow formations, called penitente, are found at elevations above 13,000 feet in the Dry Andes of Chile and Argentina. They form when the snow vaporizes — directly from solid to gas — in the cold dry wind. A feedback loop of sublimation and ablation creates snow peaks as tall as 16 feet.

Penitentes at the southern end of the Chajnantor plain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Penitente are named for their resemblance to kneeling penitents or the hoods worn during Spanish Holy Week. They even resemble this statue of Saint Bernadette at the grotto at Nevers.

Grotto at Nevers, France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes a snow field will reach across the road …

Snow field of penitentes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… so people get out of their cars to look at it. This one is at Agua Negra Pass on the border of Chile and Argentina, elevation 15,682 ft.

Penitentes at Paso de Agua Negra, Argentina, elev. 15,680 ft (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The “penitent” snow creates an otherworldly scene. Click on the photo below for a panoramic view at night.

Planetary Analogue: Penitente on a starry night in the Atacama desert (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

2 thoughts on “Penitent Snow

  1. Wow! Now that is snow worth seeing.
    The line under the last picture should be “Atacama” , not ‘Atacamba”, I think.

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